Here’s what I’ve learned: All suburban white women like Pumpkin Spice Lattes between the months of September and November, and, when in Florida, something called an Acai bowl.
The white woman I was with roped me into a food truck line that sold Acai bowls. She had studied my tastes, and decided that I was pretty much a white woman, so I would enjoy these purpley-frozen-smoothie-things. Plus, she said, Acai bowls are a superfood. People my age—36 years old—should be thinking about staying young as long as we can.
It wasn’t really a date, but it wasn’t really not-a-date.
Golf, old people, and alligators, I said to the white woman who wanted me to try the Acai bowl. She had just asked me what I knew about Florida, and I was trying to be cute. She had lived here for three years and taught rhet/comp at the University of Tampa—a bigger school than I’ve ever dreamed of teaching at. I hoped she would invite me for a drink in her hotel bar after we attended the night’s speaker, but I didn’t want to set expectations.
Oh, yeah, I continued. And then there’s that quarterback you all have. The one who became a meme for sucking on his fingers. He was giving a pregame speech or something.
Eat a W, the white girl behind us said. (She must have been listening the whole time.)
I nodded at the girl in line and said, That’s right. The guy who ate the W. I mean, he ate his fingers. Or pretended to. My cousins are really into sports, and they showed me the video at Thanksgiving. We were playing touch football after the turkey dinner, as we always do, and they kept yelling eat a W every time they caught a pass or scored a touchdown. It was confusing.
I’d get a kick out of watching you play football, the white woman said. (I don’t know if she was flirting or what.)
When it was our turn, we ordered the Acai bowls. I picked the regular, which came with bananas and granola. The food truck guy said they would take five or six minutes to make, so we found a close-by bench. Even though it was after 5pm, I was trying not to look sweaty. I was overdressed in my long-sleeve button up and khakis. Thankfully, I hadn’t worn a tie.
In the parking lot, there was a shirtless college-aged kid on a skateboard doing tricks. He had long, bleached hair and one of those ultra-lean physiques that you can only have when you are younger. He wasn’t X-Games good, but he was skilled enough to spin on two wheels, and to land little jumps and grinds on the concrete curb stops. After a while, I realized the white woman and I were both staring at him.
The skateboard kid came rolling over at one point, and I asked him what kind of board he had. I used to have a deck myself when I was younger, back in the 90’s, but the best I could do was mess around the driveway. And I used to be a fan of that Christian Slater movie Gleaming the Cube.
It’s a Birdhouse, the skateboard kid said. (I pretended to know what that meant.)
I could watch you skate all day, the white woman said.
And when she said it, I was reminded of this time in college when this girl I had a crush on told me she wanted to go watch the soccer team practice because soccer players had fantastic legs, and she liked to watch them run. When the girl I had the huge crush on said this thing about the soccer players’ legs, a part of me understood, without a doubt, that nothing would ever happen between us.
I knew the woman sitting next to me was a completely different person than the girl in college, but I felt, again, a desperate urge to trade every good attribute I had for something else. I felt, for lack of a better phrase, like starting over.
White Landscaping Rocks
Here’s a story of Louie and Heath, who love each other. White landscaping rocks. Pampas grass. Is this a secret code? There’s more: Purple decorations in the yard. A black ring worn on the right hand. Pineapple doorknockers. Even ridiculous garden gnomes. “You swing, right?” the neighbor woman across the way had asked one Friday. Heath had been getting the mail. “We would welcome a male couple with open arms,” the woman had said, and Heath had stared at her.
In those first six months after moving to Lionsgate housing community (where everyone is beautiful), both Heath and Louie lost weight. Every sidewalk in the neighborhood was a fashion runway. Heath, who had never before exercised, took up jogging. Louie, who was most comfortable at home in sweat pants and v-neck t-shirt, donned form-fitting jogging pants and moisture-wicking tops, and silk pajamas at bedtime. They jettisoned their Friday night pitchers of Boulevard and mozzarella sticks for kale salads and mango smoothies. French press coffee from single origin beans. Heath even went through Louie’s search history on the laptop and found that his partner had been browsing plastic surgery sites. What could he possibly be considering? A tummy tuck? A new nose? Absurd fake calves?
Slowly but surely the neighborhood ate them. And Louie and Heath fed on the idea of being eaten. “Look how those pricks painted their front door?” Heath finds himself saying. “This will certainly come up at HOA,” Louie says in response. The words sound ridiculous when they come out of their mouths, but the tone feels true. Yes, they find when talking it over; they actually want to say these words aloud. The two often sit in Adirondack chairs at the base of the driveway and sip Diet Coke, sometimes wine. They give Dan a thumbs up—the man in way-too-good-of-shape for his age mowing his lawn next door, shirtless and tanned to the color of the beige painted houses around him. Louie and Heath whisper to each other when Cindy Hawkins—pregnant for the third time in three years—floats past their property pushing a double stroller and talking on her Bluetooth. “There goes Fertility Barbie,” they say.
At first Louie and Heath like their new bodies. They admire their tighter physiques and tell each other their asses look like a million dollars. They make love. They have sex. They fuck. They think about all the beautiful people in close proximity. All those lovely bodies crashing into each other. Before long, the world closes in. Before long, Lionsgate is the center of the universe.
And then, after a while, the physicality slows. Heath admits to himself that Louie might look better with a new stomach, or a stronger jaw, or a new nose. They can afford it, couldn’t they? Perhaps they could “get work done” together. One could play caretaker while the other recovered. The strong one could hold the weak one’s hand. Tell the other person how great they are going to look—how great the touching will be. Heath feels terrible for wanting to will the idea into existence.
This story doesn’t have an ending. It doesn’t have the balloon of Louie and Heath’s relationship slowly leaking into a soft flatness. No intense Pop! that ends life as they know it. What it has is Louie talking more and more with the neighbor woman from across the way. They stand at the mailbox, laughing. They touch each other on the forearm when the conversation ends. And a few days later, Heath waves the neighbor woman from across the way over to Louie’s empty Adirondack chair (because Louie is at a work thing), and Heath doesn’t like to drink Diet Coke alone. Summer is ending soon. The days are getting shorter. Neither Heath nor Louie know what will come in the next week or month or year. But they both fear they are talking to the neighbor woman from across the way for the same reason.
Snakes occasionally sun themselves on the bike trail. Garters and ribbons, mostly. Long and fat black snakes. Gray racers. Northern water snakes. Beautiful, striped milk snakes.
The single mother down the hill from me swears there is a cottonmouth living in a cement hole next to the Brookfield trail entrance. “A water moccasin,” she calls the snake the second time she brings it up. She and her daughter used to love to go for walks on the bike trail, but you-know-what is standing in the way of her joy. She’s asking me to kill the snake, I realize, but also never to tell her about what I’ve done.
In my running shoes and shorts, I walk to the trailhead that merges with our neighborhood, an old, dusty spade in my left hand. The May weather is just starting to warm—upper seventies today. A chance of eighties tomorrow, and then another storm.
There is no snake. I shine my cellphone light down the hole in the cement. I stamp my feet all around and part the locks of tall grass with the spade handle. Nothing.
I walk a hundred yards down the trail, and then a hundred up. It’s probably just an everyday water snake the single mother saw. It’s easy to confuse the two if you don’t know what you are looking at.
A couple months pass before I think of the snake again. The calendar says July and I am running on the trail in 90-plus-degree heat. From the bottom of the Prairie Creek Greenway to our housing development is a mile-long rise. It’s a killer hill, especially since I always try to push my last mile. I finished second in my age division in the Midnight Madness 10K—thirteen seconds behind the leader—and I don’t want to get that close this year and not win.
I had assured the single mother the cottonmouth (if it even existed) was surely dead or moved on. All those walkers, bikers, and runners. An animal would be terrified to live in that hole.
But the snake is there when I reach the top of the hill. Fat and half-coiled before me with brown and charcoal bands. Its face has pits. I don’t need to see its open, white-laced mouth. I can tell by the elliptical pupils—its cat eyes. The single mother is right. This snake is a viper.
I don’t know what to do. Here I am, completely spent. No spade in sight. No screaming children running with arms flailing. No victims or witnesses. My hair is wild. Skin bright red. Arms and legs sweat-slick and trembling. The snake and I are both baking in the sun—in this nearly one hundred degrees of heat pressing down. The two of us are in each other’s way, both staring directly into the golden brown eyes of the creature before us.
We can kill each other. Both of us know it. Yet neither one of us can move.